A Long History of Cooperation

Like so many people I know and encounter through my work as a punk, I have been feeling uneasy and anxious for many months leading up to the election. Post-election it’s been much harder to keep my worries under wraps. One of the ways I’ve been trying to manage these feelings has been to immerse myself in information. This isn’t always comforting; sometimes it’s an effort to try to understand, or to predict, or to prepare for what changes are likely to lie ahead in the next few years. Here’s what I’ve been digging into: radio waves, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, documentaries like XIII and Hypernormalisation, bystander intervention training, the Friends Service Committee, rapid response groups, and Tor, and of course cooperatives. I’m trying to keep busy, and productive, I’ve been spending time getting super organized in order to be more effective- i.e. trying to have 1 analog calendar instead of 3 virtual ones. I’ve been contemplating not checking email for the first hour of the day, or on somedays, at all. All of this is to counter this mounting tension and dread, one that many more people are feeling, that for others this is nothing new.

Reading about cooperative ventures falls into the category of more comforting and assuring. This report was had some great profiles of coops around the world, and is worth skimming. Also worth checking out was the International Co-operative Alliance’s website. I learned that just a few years ago, Cooperative businesses membership reached 1 billion. This means that the number of people participating in cooperative enterprise exceeds the 893 million people who are direct and indirect shareholders of corporations. This means 1 in 7.4 people on the planet are already participating in commerce cooperatively. Many cooperatives are born of necessity, where resources are few and the only way people can survive is by pooling what they have together. This make sense economically, but also politically and socially. By working together, people are able to build a financial basis that can not only provide the basic goods and services that they need and want, but also opportunity to expand those resources to reach more people. These cooperative economies, whether small and fairly isolated or larger and linked together, create possibilities when there are often none. They create social cohesion and trust between people, a necessary element to exert political power through solidarity. It makes sense that POCA is a coop.

In the US many people first encounter coops through credit unions, or local consumer food coops. Bigger coops like REI, or agricultural coops have greater recognition, either nationally or regionally. One new thing I’ve discovered is that coops in America have a long history and precedent; many of the largest and most successful were built, as so much has been, through the work of African Americans. Going back to the Reconstruction Era, African American cooperative and mutual aid organizations, unions, and cooperative business including: the Wilberforce Colony, the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, the Independent Order of St. Luke, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Knights of Labor KOL, Cooperative Workers of America (CWA) and the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union (CFNACU). African Americans knew that the only way to overcome the stacked odds against their successful futures was to work together. In the time after the Civil War, they had little to no economic base with which to obtain the basics: land, housing, food, tools, transport, education, or raw materials, etc. Through mutuality and solidarity they were able to build and obtain resources that would have been impossible to get acting as sole agents. In the time before slavery was outlawed, enslaved people receiving nothing for the work of their bondage would still at times be able to pool enough money to buy the freedom of a family member. Or, in other instances, to help freed slaves secure landholding in the North. The Underground Railroad was a mutual aid society of sorts. Later formalized African American mutual aid societies provided families in need with money for funerals, or to help widows and children of the many lost to poor living and working conditions, illness and violence.

Collective Courage- A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Nembhard documents the long history of formal and informal ways that African Americans have “engage[d] in collective practice in order to achieve or maintain the independence they needed to assert themselves politically.” Further, “Lessons learned from the African American-owned businesses that were formal cooperative ventures include the need for education and training of members, leaders, and managers; stable and adequate capitalization and clientele; the building of trust and solidarity among members; and support from the community.”

The Civil Rights Movement almost a century after the Reconstruction Era was again a time of change and accomplishment that showed the power of solidarity. The resurgence of an organized resistance to the policies and culture of white supremacy evident at the time, freedom marches, black voter registration, school desegregation, the rise of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and leaders like Malcom X and MLK, saw laws questioned, “norms” challenged. With the passage of two constitutional amendments addressing civil and voting rights, progress could be marked. But these new rights on paper did not erase the social inequalities and injustices that our country carries forward today. Violent  and reactionary pushback from white supremacist America has led to a ssassinations, arrests, and attacks on leaders and laypeople then, and is a tactic that is continued with intent to derail and intimidate, and to stop progress.

Rev. William Barber talks about a current Third Reconstruction where black and brown people, still organizing to stand up for fair treatment, whether by police in their communities, or municipal water suppliers, are again met white backlash. With the last election cycle we have all seen the emboldenment of many to spew intolerance and hatred at various groups of people who have long been seeking basic and fair inclusion. In part because of how the politics of race and oppression intersects with, issues of immigration, gender identity, sexual equality, religious freedom, and in part because our nation is still so divided, many more people are getting involved in making social and political change happen. In both the first and “second” Reconstruction Eras, progressive whites joined together in solidarity with black and brown people in what Barber calls Fusion Politics. At a moment in time where it seems so many want to drag us back 50 years or more, we need to not only resist that regression, but we need to join up again in solidarity, to show our collective commitment, and the kind of courage that people that came before us showed. The urgency is real, the time is now. Any organization with a moral or ethical mission, with an eye on justice and humanity, with the capacity to good, and to call to attention the will of its members is bound to bring that forward.

POCA is still growing and as of now has a majority white representation. But in this next time of what Rev. Barber calls Fusion Politics, where multi-racial, and intersectional social and political movements, together with solidarity economics, we must consider all that we can do to contribute to the way forward, and leverage our resources towards a new world. We are building, together, institutions to serve and support our communities during hard times, as well as good. We have a long history and body of knowledge to fall back on for our own endeavors. Organizing ourselves is the only way we can endure and overcome the oppression and greed that would otherwise keep people as less important than profits. It’s time to heed the call and get to work.

Author: crismonteiro

I've always thought that I would live to be 100 years old and now that I have an actual idea of what it might be like to inhabit this body for a century I want to be damn sure that Community Acupuncture is around to help me through my days and in the end, on my way. In the meantime, I am passionate about getting shit done, and also having fun.

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  1. Cris, I always love reading your work, and now I have a whole bunch more titles for my reading list. It’s already way too long, dammit!

  2. Pleased to see that the book by Mr Barbur is published by Beacon Press, the Unitarian book publishing arm! They’ve been in this struggle a long time. And YES, now is the time to press on. joanne

  3. My husband just started reading Rev. Barber’s book. Our local UU church community is promoting it as essential reading.

  4. So motivating when you see how others made it work, made it possible, built so much with what must have seemed so little or so discouraging or dangerous of circumstances Wow humbling